With the coronavirus, an opportunity to reinvent Dallas


Faced with adversity, our city has the chance to double down on civic improvements.

The idea that “Dallas isn’t a walkable city” is such an accepted truism that you’d think it was our civic motto, printed in Latin on the city flag — Dallas est non amica pedestrem. Even I find myself repeating it sometimes, to my shame.

If there has been a silver lining to the coronavirus lockdown, it has been to disabuse us of this notion. With traffic mostly off the streets, people are on them, strolling, jogging, biking, cheering each other on, and just happy to be outside of their homes for a little bit. The air is clean, fragrant from spring’s blossoms, and not quite so fouled by the pollutants of combustion engines (although the pollen count is pretty rough).

Things have been, in a sense, too good. Our neglected sidewalks — broken, blocked, and inadequate where they even exist — can’t accommodate the increased pedestrian traffic, forcing walkers into the middle of our streets. The Katy Trail has been so crowded that the city has turned to an alternate day accessibility program predicated on the alphabetical order of last names.

Dallasites run and walk at the Katy Trail in Dallas on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.
Dallasites run and walk at the Katy Trail in Dallas on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Better to be safe, certainly, but in that interest the city equally should be taking measures to expand accessibility to walkable space, not just restrict it. That means taking immediate steps to implement a linked network of streets closed to automotive traffic for the period of quarantine, as cities have done around the world to great popular success, from Oakland to Milan.

This plainly evident desire to be together in public space, even in these difficult times, is a rejoinder to those who would suggest that there is no future for the city. That was the argument we heard after 9/11. City living was obsolete. We could all just telecommute. It wasn’t true then any more than it is now. Raise your hand if you’ve had enough of Zoom calls.

When lockdown ends, and it will, our streets will reopen. But instead of returning them to the status quo ante, why not take this opportunity to rapidly paint in bike lanes and adapt our streets to better suit the needs of pedestrians. That means expanding sidewalks, squaring off those infernal “radiused” corners — the corners rounded off to allow cars to turn faster, creating median strips and bump outs at crossings, and many other proven traffic calming techniques. Alterations can be done with paint quickly, inexpensively — with more permanent physical measures to follow.

Better Block volunteers fill large potters with fresh soil as they plant trees at the Five Points street intersection in the Vickery Meadow area of Dallas on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Improvements include adding a plaza, potted trees, a pop-up container store, stage, swings and colorful walkways to beautify the neighborhood.
Better Block volunteers fill large potters with fresh soil as they plant trees at the Five Points street intersection in the Vickery Meadow area of Dallas on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Improvements include adding a plaza, potted trees, a pop-up container store, stage, swings and colorful walkways to beautify the neighborhood. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

It really doesn’t take much effort, and we don’t have to look outside of our own city bounds for the proof. In the weeks just before lockdown, the nonprofit Better Block Foundation, working with the city and the business improvement organization Downtown Dallas Inc., installed a protected bike lane along Harwood Street from Main Street to Dallas Heritage Village.

Remaking our streets is the single most imperative urban improvement project we can undertake in the effort to build a stronger Dallas. We might also create more of those streets. It is past time to remove Interstate 345, the decrepit elevated highway that separates downtown from Deep Ellum, and replace it with an arterial system of streets and boulevards. A new neighborhood in place of the current elevated highway and the terrain vague of concrete spaghetti that feeds it would suture the city back together, provide desperately needed housing, and increase the city’s tax base. Commuting times would be minimally impaired.

We need only look to Klyde Warren Park to see the immense benefits — economic and social — of reconnecting parts of the city divided by highways.

A runner has room to glide through the relatively empty Klyde Warren Park on Monday afternoon, April 13, 2020, in Dallas.
A runner has room to glide through the relatively empty Klyde Warren Park on Monday afternoon, April 13, 2020, in Dallas. (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

The city should also be learning from the temporary conversion of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center into a triage medical facility. Among the chief principles advocated by resilience planners is the concept of “dual use,” the idea that buildings, especially public infrastructure, should be designed to accommodate emergency needs in addition to their primary functions.

With the convention center set for a renovation, special care should be devoted to ensuring that it will fully meet potential emergency needs in the future, with adequate plumbing, electrical capacity and ventilation. The same should go for any major new facility — sports arenas, in particular — subsidized with public funds and tax incentives.

An opportunistic streak has characterized the people of Dallas from its very first days. The settlers who came here saw, in the harsh prairie, a chance to make a life in the wilderness. When adversity has struck, Dallasites have responded with feats of civic energy. The great flood of 1908? Dallas moved a river, putting the Trinity between levees. The Kennedy assassination? That brought Goals for Dallas, and with it a new airport that opened the city to the world.

Now the city is faced with another calamity, and it can either shrug and sink back into itself, or act boldly to remake itself for the future. Budgets may be stressed, but it is nevertheless time to think proactively, to take advantage of low construction costs and a city in need of work.

Some day, the coronavirus will be a painful memory. The city can be better or worse for it, better prepared for the next disaster, or more susceptible than it is even now.

It’s really not that hard a choice.

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